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Sorghum: The High-Fiber, Gluten-Free Ancient Grain You Need to Know About

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Sorghum - Dr. Axe

The sorghum plant, a member of the grass plant family called Panicoideae, provides nutrients and much-needed calories to impoverished populations living in places such as Africa. In fact, it’s considered the “fifth-most important cereal crop grown in the world,” according to the Whole Grains Council, and the third most important within the United States.

What is sorghum flour made out of, and is sorghum healthier than wheat?

Sorghum is an ancient, 100 percent whole grain kernel that is ground into a fine flour that can be used in various ways for cooking and baking.

Because of its versatility as a food source, animal feed and bioavailable fuel, today sorghum grain is widely grown in the U.S. One of its growing commercial uses is in the gluten-free flour space, where it’s both included in store-bought flour blends and sold on its own as sorghum flour.

While historically it’s taken a backseat in the U.S. to grain alternatives like corn, quinoa or potatoes, the growing knowledge of gluten sensitivities and the gluten-free diet trend in recent years have now brought sorghum flour into the spotlight.

It’s also a good choice due to its content of fiber, phosphorus and iron.

What Is Sorghum?

Sorghum (which has the scientific name Sorghum bicolor L. Moench) is an ancient cereal grain that originated in parts of Africa and Australia more than 5,000 years ago.

Can humans eat sorghum? Yes!

The grain itself and sorghum flour — which is beige or white in color, considered to be “sweet,” softly textured and mild-tasting — are now popular ingredients found in many health food stores and large supermarkets.

While it’s still hard to find 100 percent whole grain sorghum grains in most stores, most well-stocked major grocery stores now sell gluten-free flour blends made with sorghum flour that are convenient, healthy and perfect for baking and other uses.

The plant that sorghum grains grow on is considered durable, yields high amounts when harvested and stands up to heat well, making it a valuable crop in times of droughts. This is one reason why grains like this have been staples for poor and rural people for thousands of years, especially those living in tropical regions like Africa, Central America and South Asia.

The earliest known record of sorghum comes from an archaeological dig site at Nabta Playa, near the Egyptian-Sudanese border, dating back to about 8,000 B.C. After originating in Africa, sorghum grains spread through the Middle East and Asia via ancient trade routes.

Travelers brought dried sorghum grains to parts of the Arabian Peninsula, India and China along the Silk Road. Many years later, the first known record of sorghum in the United States came from Ben Franklin in 1757, who wrote about how the grains could be used to make brooms.

Aside from its culinary uses for human consumption, sorghum is also considered a valuable livestock feed in the U.S., not to mention it has promising eco-friendly uses for providing sustainable and natural energy. In recent years, its use in the ethanol market has grown rapidly, with estimates showing that today about 30 percent of domestic sorghum is now going to ethanol production.

Types

Sorghum goes by many names around the globe:

  • milo in parts of India
  • guinea corn in West Africa
  • kafir corn in South Africa
  • dura in Sudan
  • mtamain eastern Africa
  •  jowar in other areas of India
  • kaoliang in China

Historically, aside from being grown to make edible sorghum grains or flour, the grain has also been used to make sorghum syrup, (also called “sorghum molasses”), animal feed, certain alcoholic beverages and even energy-efficient biofuels.

The healthiest type of sorghum flour is made with 100 percent ground sorghum that hasn’t been bleached, enriched or refined.

In the United States, it’s becoming more common to find sorghum flour in store-bought or commercially sold gluten-free baked goods, but making your own is always the best option. This lets you cut back on preservatives, sugar and any artificial thickening agents that are commonly used in packaged products.

Nutrition

Like other whole grains, sorghum is impressive when it comes to its nutrient content, providing a good dose of plant-based protein, iron, B vitamins and dietary fiber.

Sorghum flour is also surprisingly high in antioxidants, including phenolic compounds, tannins and anthocyanin, which help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.

A quarter-cup (about 35 grams) of sorghum flour contains approximately:

  • 130 calories
  • 28 grams carbohydrates
  • 3 grams protein
  • 0.5 grams fat
  • 2 grams fiber
  • 1 milligram iron (6 percent DV)
  • 124 milligrams potassium (2 percent DV)

One ounce of sorghum grains (about 28 grams) has approximately:

  • 94.5 calories
  • 20.9 grams carbohydrates
  • 3.2 grams protein
  • 0.9 grams fat
  • 1.8 grams fiber
  • 80.4 milligrams phosphorus (8 percent DV)
  • 1.2 milligrams iron (7 percent DV)
  • 0.1 milligrams thiamine (4 percent DV)
  • 0.8 milligram niacin (4 percent DV)
  • 98 milligrams potassium (3 percent DV)

Benefits

1. Gluten-Free and Non-GMO

Is sorghum healthier than wheat? It is an excellent substitute for wheat flour, and sorghum flour makes a great baking ingredient for anyone who cannot tolerate gluten, such as those with celiac disease.

While the protein gluten can cause digestive and other health issues for many people — including bloating, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, headaches and other symptoms — gluten-free sorghum flour tends to be easier to digest and tolerate.

Aside from avoiding gluten, there’s another important benefit to using sorghum flour over wheat flour and certain gluten-free blends: avoiding genetically modified ingredients (GMOs).

Unlike corn and some wheat crops, sorghum grains are grown from traditional hybrid seeds that combine several types of sorghum grasses. This is a natural method that has been used for centuries and does not require biotechnology, making it nontransgenic (non-GMO food) that doesn’t come with the same risks.

2. High in Fiber

One of the biggest benefits of eating whole grains is that they retain all of their dietary fiber, unlike refined grains that are processed to remove parts like their bran and germ.

Sorghum actually doesn’t have an inedible hull like some other grains, so even its outer layers commonly are eaten. This means it supplies even more fiber, in addition to other crucial nutrients like iron, and has a lower glycemic index.

This can contribute to digestive, hormonal and cardiovascular health benefits. Sorghum flour also essentially “stick to your ribs” longer than some other refined flours, making you feel fuller and reducing a “crash” after eating it.

3. Good Source of Antioxidants

There are several types of sorghum plants, some of which are high in antioxidants that are tied to reduced risks of developing cancer, diabetes, heart disease and some neurological diseases.

Antioxidants are found in anti-inflammatory foods, and they help scavenge free radicals that, when left uncontrolled, can lead to inflammation, aging and various illnesses.

Sorghum is a rich source of various phytochemicals — including tannins, phenolic acids, anthocyanins, phytosterols and policosanols — which, according to studies, means sorghum and sorghum flour might offer similar health benefits as eating whole foods such as fruits.

A 2004 study published in the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry found that anthocyanin antioxidants are present in black, brown and red sorghum grains. Antioxidant activity and pH stability were found in sorghum at levels three to four times higher than certain other whole grains.

Black sorghum is especially considered a high-antioxidant food and had the highest anthocyanin content of all in the study, while white-grained sorghum has been found to have a high polyphenol content.

Sorghum grains also have a natural, waxy layer that surrounds the grain and contains protective plant compounds, such as the type called policosanol, which research suggests has positive implications for cardiac health, including by lowering cholesterol.

Other research shows great potential for phenolic compounds found in sorghum to help with arterial health. Mainly located in the bran fraction, phenolics result in the plant having substantial antioxidant properties and non-enzymatic processes that help fight pathogenesis at the root of many diabetic complications and cell mutations that may contribute to cancer.

4. Slowly Digested and Balances Blood Sugar

Because sorghum flour is low on the glycemic index, it takes longer than other flours to digest. This slows down the rate at which glucose (sugar) is released into the bloodstream, which is particularly helpful for anyone with blood sugar issues, such as diabetes.

Impressively, certain varieties of sorghum brans that have a high phenolic content and high antioxidant status have been shown to inhibit protein glycation. This suggests that they can affect critical biological processes that are important in diabetes and insulin resistance.

5. Helps Fight Inflammation, Cancer and Heart Disease

Is sorghum flour inflammatory? Quite the opposite, actually.

Eating a whole foods-based diet that is high in available phytonutrients is consistently linked to better protection from common nutrition and inflammation-related diseases.

Sorghum consumption seems to help reduce the risk of certain types of cancer in humans, especially colorectal cancer, compared to other cereals. The high concentration of anti-inflammatory phytochemical antioxidants, including phenolic acids and flavonoids, found in this grain are thought to be responsible for its cancer-fighting effects.

Sorghum contains tannins that are widely reported to reduce caloric availability and can help fight obesity, weight gain and metabolic complications. One study found that its consumption reduced body fat percentage and increased dietary fiber intake when compared to wheat consumption.

Sorghum phytochemicals also help promote cardiovascular health, which is critical considering that cardiovascular disease is currently the leading killer in the U.S. and “developed world” in general.

Your guide to sorghum flour - Dr. Axe

Uses (Plus Recipes)

What is sorghum used for? Ground sorghum flour can be used just like other gluten-free grains to make homemade baked goods like bread, muffins, pancakes and even beer.

You can also take inspiration from places like Africa and the Middle East where savory breads, breakfast “pudding,” couscous and tortillas are all made with sorghum flour.

Across the globe, some of the ways that this grain is commonly consumed is in leavened and unleavened flatbreads called jowar roti in India, porridge eaten for breakfast or couscous served with dinner in Africa and in stews made in parts of the Pacific Islands. It is also used to make both various fermented and unfermented beverages or simply consumed as a fresh vegetable in some cultures.

Can sorghum flour replace all-purpose flour?

When making recipes at home that call for wheat flour (such as when you’re baking brownies, cakes, cookies, breads and muffins), unbleached sorghum can be added or substituted for part of the regular flour or subbed for gluten-free flour blends.

On top of providing nutrients, an added benefit is that unlike some gluten-free flours (like rice flour or corn flour, for example) that can sometimes be crumbly, dry or gritty, sorghum flour usually has a smoother texture.

Most experts recommend adding between 15 percent to 30 percent sorghum flour  to replace other flours (like wheat flour). Using 100 percent sorghum isn’t usually the best idea because it doesn’t rise as well as lighter flours.

It works best when combined with other gluten-free flour like rice or potato starch. You’ll likely get the best results if you start with recipes that use relatively small amounts of flour in general, like brownies or pancakes, for example, rather than muffins or breads.

What does sorghum taste like?

It has a very mild taste. It’s easy to incorporate some into sweets, or in small amounts it can be used to thicken stews, sauces and other savory dishes without changing the flavor much.

What are other tips for using this flour?

Keep in mind that with gluten-free baking, without gluten to “bind” together ingredients and add to the texture of recipes, it’s a good idea to incorporate a binder, such as xanthan gum or cornstarch, to add “stretch.”

You can add 1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum per cup of sorghum flour for cookies and cakes and one teaspoon per cup for breads.

Adding slightly more oil or fat (such as coconut oil or grass-fed butter) and extra eggs helps the ingredients blend and can improve the moisture content and texture. Another trick is to use apple cider vinegar, which can also improve the volume of doughs made with gluten-free blends.

Here are several sorghum recipes to try at home:

Risks and Side Effects

Not all grains, even whole grains, are best for everyone. For many people, eating grains (and beans, legumes, nuts and seeds too) is problematic when it comes to digestion and can contribute to gastrointestinal issues.

One reason is that all grains naturally contain “antinutrients” that block some of the grain’s minerals and vitamins from being absorbed and utilized properly.

One way to overcome this challenge partially is to sprout grains. A major benefit of sprouting is that it unlocks beneficial digestive enzymes, which make all types of grains, seeds, beans and nuts easier on the digestive system.

This also helps increase beneficial flora levels in the gut so you experience less of an autoimmune type of reaction when you eat these foods.

Even after sprouting grains, it’s best to have them in small amounts and to vary your diet, such as by including plenty of vegetables, fruits, grass-fed animal products and probiotic foods.

If you have celiac disease or a severe gluten allergy, be sure to check that any flour you purchase is labeled gluten-free. If you’re unsure, it’s best to contact the manufacturer or check its website to avoid risking having a reaction.

Conclusion

  • What is sorghum? It’s a whole, ancient grain that originated in Africa thousands of years ago that has been an important food source for many centuries. It’s commonly ground into a white flour and used in gluten-free baking.
  • Is it healthier than wheat? It’s a much better option for those with celiac disease/gluten sensitivity, since it naturally lacks gluten, plus it provide more nutrients like B12 and iron than regular, refined white flour.
  • The phenolic profile is especially unique and more abundant and diverse than other common cereal grains, plus it offers other antioxidants like tannins and anthocyanins.
  • This grain offers health-protective properties, including the ability to lower cholesterol, inflammation and oxidative stress. It may help fight heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other chronic diseases.
Josh Axe

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